Tuesday, December 14, 2010

North Korea: Imagining The Straw That Breaks The Peninsula's Back

The Korean Peninsula was divided in two by the Allies during the Potsdam Conference in August 1945. Since then, the world has watched as the South caught the globalization wave and left the North to its inwardly-focused economics and strange leadership. Recent events have brought the Korean discussion to an interesting impasse and many are claiming the North Korean regime has seen the writing on the wall and is acting out accordingly, preparing for its demise.

So what's the real Korean Peninsula end game? Will the South continue to successfully side-step war with the North until the regime collapses from within without a shot fired? Will the six-party talks resume and agree to a peaceful end? Or will it take a couple more Chenoan incidents before the South feels it is boxed in and must militarily respond? Even then, the South's military response certainly might fall short of outright invasion. Or a few shellings back and forth and there could be degeneration into a devastating, all-out conventional war? Things really could go one way or the other at this point, as far as an outside view can tell. So the question we arrive to is, what will it take for the Korean Peninsula to finally unify itself? What action is going to push it finally over the brink?

One thought could be if something goes wrong during the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. The internal power dynamics of this secretive country remain largely unknown and things could be much less stable than they are thought to be (which they are already thought to be quite unstable as it is). Maybe a disagreement emerges between Kim Jong Un and some of the very powerful military leadership, which could lead to a coup, and then who knows?

One common argument that the end is coming uses the brutal conditions that North Koreans live under as clear evidence that the situation cannot be sustained forever. Eventually something has to give, right? I'm not convinced. The North Korean people have endured food shortages and famines since the 1990s, a currency revaluation a year ago that wiped out personal savings, crackdowns on free market and enterprise, isolation from the outside world, and (if that's not enough) have been completely brainwashed. Time has proven that the suffering of the North Korean people will not be enough to tip the balance toward unification.

So what will it be? Seoul does not want war for a myriad of reasons, primarily because the city itself is 30 miles from the DMZ and will be the target of hundreds of North Korean shells. This is not to mention the economic disaster that would ensue should reunification suddenly take place. So reunification is not in Seoul's interest. And it certainly is not in Pyongyang's interest either as it is widely understood that a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula would result in the end of the regime. And further, reunification (or at least the risks involved in the reunification process) is not in US or Chinese interests given their security agreements with each country. A war between China and the US would take much more than anything going on in the Korean Peninsula, given the stakes involved (at least hopefully, that is). So all that said, it is in no one's interest to reunify the Korean Peninsula, but there is wide agreement that the status quo cannot be maintained.

So here's my prediction. Sometime over the next year, a grave miscalculation, on either side, a couple stray shells here or there, an incursion too far, a mixed signal that is misinterpreted, and boom, we've got a shootin' war folks. The situation is currently serious and getting more so. The US and China call for restraint, but do nothing. Seoul is devastated, the Northern army fights and dies, maybe even a nuke hits a target in the South, but after the bloodshed, the North is overwhelmed, surrenders, its leadership put to a long and drawn out globally-watched trail, and reunification costs the South billions.

The end is coming. It's dire, it sucks, but hey, that's life.

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